‘New Blue and White” at the Museum of Fine Arts is not your grandmother’s china cabinet. The contemporary art exhibit riffing on blue and white ceramics flouts the familiar forms and patterns of Ming vases, Dutch delftware, Blue Willow china from Britain, and more. It also honors them.
A sweet familiarity wafts through this sumptuous, conceptually elegant show.
When I was small, my family had plates decorated with windmills — Dutch delftware, or its replica. I’ve got a souvenir mug from Cape Cod that mimics that design. Blue and white ceramics have permeated cultures and households around the world.
Their history is nearly as deep and extensive as that of tea. More than 1,000 years ago, cobalt traveled from the Middle East to Asia, where it was used to make pigment applied to white clay. Eventually, Europeans visiting the East brought the pottery home, and Westerners began to replicate the process and make it their own. From there, they disseminated it to parts of the world they had colonized.
At first, blue and white tea sets and vases signified wealth and power, but in time, manufacturing techniques produced less expensive china, and democratized the medium. Contemporary artists spinning off from the form have plenty to chew on: themes of power, globalism, commerce, and colonialism. Yet that homey familiarity clings to most of the objects here, from vases to a pair of shoes to a surfboard.
For instance, Ann Agee produces her own version of Dutch delftware. Her “Gross Domestic Product” features several plates assembled higgledy-piggledy into a single wall hanging. They sport cartoonish border patterns, and they depict deserted, low-end rooms. Agee unsettlingly juxtaposes the supposed value of delftware and the status it confers with images of seedy desolation. She draws pictures of a home that is anything but cozy, using objects that pulled me in because they reminded me of my childhood. Yikes.
Emily Zilber, the museum’s curator of contemporary decorative arts, has tapped more than 40 artists to show close to 70 objects. Most of the work, while steeped in meaning, soothes the eye. The palette is a balm — serene, enveloping, lulling as dusk on a summer evening.
Indeed, you might want to wrap yourself in the first thing you see when you walk into the gallery. Caroline Cheng’s “Prosperity” is a kimono covered with thousands of dusky blue porcelain butterflies, fine as paper. They look as if they might lift off and carry the garment away like a magic carpet. In Chinese, the words for “prosperity” and “clothing” have the same pronunciation: “fu.” Cheng’s kimono is the picture of good fortune.
Cheng, a British artist based in Hong Kong, commissioned Chinese artisans to fashion each unique butterfly, harking back a millennium to the origins of blue and white china and its subsequent manufacture for export.
Something else to wear: Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy grew up with Ming vases in their San Francisco home. Now the team behind the fashion label Rodarte, they’ve designed a luminous, sleeveless silk gown with ribbon embroidery and printed chiffon inspired by Ming designs. It could float on moonlight.
Objects such as these are at home at the MFA, with its extensive ceramic collection. Many of the works link to historic pieces on display in other galleries. There’s even one family connection: Japanese artist Kondo Takahiro, in his sparkly vase “Galaxy,” plays upon his personal lineage in the blue and white ceramics of his culture, sometsuke. A vase made by his grandfather Kondo Yuzo can be found elsewhere in the museum.
Zilber breaks the show into four sections — memory, abstraction, politics, and cultural identity — with fluid bounds between them. Iranian-born artist Pouran Jinchi, in her lovely “Prayer Stones 2,” refers back to the Abbasid ceramics crafted in her region in the ninth century. She has painted clay tablets used by Shiite Muslims to rest their foreheads on during prayer. The blue and white lacquer patterns, floral designs, and invocations in Farsi on these small pieces make them gemlike. Jinchi has placed them flat in a concise mandala design, which prompts meditation.
Harumi Nakashima’s “Work 0808,” one of the abstract pieces, slithers and loops like a many-headed serpent, in white covered with blue dots. The form juts out in orbs, then falls back in tunnels that open up like water slides. Works such as these push at the boundaries of expectation about form, pattern, and design, yet they hold to their origins.
Boston artist Mark Cooper, like Cheng, went to the porcelain-production capital of China, Jingdezhen, to create parts of his gaudy installation, “Yu Yu Blue.” Throwing ideas of the preciousness of china to the winds, Cooper crafts slumping, ugly forms that sparkle with stunning blue glazes, and positions them on a wooden armature that crawls over the wall and up off the floor like an octopus. It’s outrageous, encompassing yet teasing tradition.
Blue and white ceramics course through several traditions. One is the Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Spode, a top dog in British ceramics, utilized transfer prints to make china more affordable in the 19th century. The factory closed in 2009. British artist Paul Scott salvaged half-completed china from the factory floor, upon which he printed his own images — one of the “closed” sign on the gates of the shuttered factory, another of the abandoned kiln room. Like Agee, he turns decorative ware into dark political commentary.
Artists can do just about anything with the blue and white motif; it’s as versatile as paint. Claire Curneen’s “Blue” explores the emotional resonances of that color, with two figures covered in a melting cobalt floral pattern, their hands nearly touching — are they moving toward each other, or pulling away?
“New Blue and White,” in the way of contemporary art, challenges old forms and ideas, even as it brims over with cultural and personal echoes. It’s hard to walk away.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.